When our oil dries up
04 September 2006

Oil is close to running out, and chaos will follow, according to a US expert. Richard Heinberg is an unlikely latter-day Jeremiah. The contrast between this quietly spoken Californian college professor and accomplished classical violinist and his explosive message couldn't be more marked. Heinberg, who is embarking on an Australia-wide speaking tour, is a leading proponent of the "peak oil" theory.
Peak oil is shorthand for the premise that the amount of oil left for us to use has "peaked" (or is just about to peak). Once worldwide production begins to fall and with no corresponding decrease in demand, oil prices will skyrocket, leading to widespread chaos.

How bad will it be? If Heinberg is to be believed, the impending dislocation caused by the end of the oil era will be about as bad as it gets. From global resource wars as oil-dependent economies battle for control of remaining resources to widespread famine caused by the slowdown in oil-dependent agribusiness, the picture he paints is nothing short of cataclysmic.

Reactions to his predictions vary. "I've got some pretty virulent hate mail," he says. "But I have to say I've got mostly thanks from people for alerting them to this. I'm a little surprised because the message is so dire that when people first encounter the information it is a bit traumatic. Some people have to go through a period of psychological adjustment. Maybe they are better off not knowing, I don't know."

Much of the work contained in Heinberg's three books is based on the ideas of the geophysicist M. King Hubbert, who first drew attention to the finite nature of oil resources in the 1950s. Viewed through Hubbert's eyes, the classic bell curve graph of accelerating oil production then accelerating scarcity takes on a distinctly chilling aspect.

Heinberg's personal epiphany came in 1998 when he came across a paper from a British geologist, Colin Campbell, predicting that oil production would peak in 2007. "It clicked with me straight away," he says.

"Resource depletion is something I had been concerned about for quite a long time but I had been looking at resources like water, topsoil, metal, natural fertiliser and so on, so finding out oil was in this precarious situation was surprising but not completely unimaginable."

In Heinberg's analysis, one of the fundamental problems with oil is, ironically, that it is such an efficient energy source. It's because of this efficiency that he remains sceptical about the prospect of renewable energy sources filling the gap when the oil runs out.

"I'm a huge advocate of renewables," he says. "I have photovoltaic panels on my roof and drive a biodiesel car but realistically I don't think we can expect renewables to replace fossil fuels any time soon without reducing our total energy consumption quite dramatically.

"It's not just going to be a matter of replacing gasoline with something else and continuing on our merry way. We're actually going to have to change our transportation systems and reduce the amount of transportation that we do." Heinberg is also sceptical of the prospect of biofuels saving the day.

"It's clear ethanol and other biofuels are going to entail a trade-off between food and fuel. If we try to replace gasoline and diesel fuels with biofuels we'll simply fail because we don't have enough land and people will starve in the process."

Nuclear power is similarly dismissed as being fraught with too many technical, economic and environmental hurdles. If we are to gently surf the downward slope of Hubbert's bell curve rather than precipitously tumble off the edge, Heinberg says, it will take a social transformation of no lesser magnitude than the industrial revolution. "I don't think we are going back to exactly how people lived 200 years ago but we are going to need lots more human labour in agriculture and that means the middle class is going to start shrinking."

Overall population levels will also have to shrink worldwide. On the back of oil's one-time energy dividend the world's population has increased sixfold, creating an unsustainable, self-perpetuating cycle needing more and more oil.

Manufacturing will again become a local business in the post-oil era as the interdependencies of global trade are unwound. International trade will continue but it will be restricted to luxuries and exotic items. People will work and shop close to home and even grow some food in their own backyards - just as many of our parents did.

"I think that's going to be good for people and good for communities," Heinberg says. "If the transition is accomplished in a co-ordinated way it's going to mean more jobs and more satisfying jobs for people.

"If you look at the end of the process it's not hard to paint a fairly attractive picture. The problem is how we get there - very few communities are planning for this transition. [But] if we just let market forces rule, the result is going to be economic, political and social chaos in the intervening period."

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